A homecoming in Newcastle

Composer Edmund Hunt looks back on his first rehearsals with Newcastle-based choir The Singers for the Adopt a Composer project. 

My first visit to The Singers was also the first time I had been back to the city since completing my masters in music at Newcastle University over ten years ago. Stepping off the bus into the Georgian grandeur of the streets around Grey’s Monument, I was immediately reminded of the year that I lived in the city; not least because my time in Newcastle was filled with a lot of singing (as a deputy lay clerk in the cathedral choir and as a member of the Cathedral Consort). Donald, the musical director, kindly met me at the bus stop. Over a coffee, our wide ranging discussion included choral music, choirs, music education, and possible ideas for a new piece.

When the time arrived for the rehearsal, I was excited but also a little nervous. As I was keen to learn as much as possible about the choir, The Singers had kindly agreed for me to join the second altos. This gave me the invaluable opportunity to experience the choir from within the ensemble, while also sight reading a lot of repertoire that I had not previously encountered.

During our post-rehearsal conversations at the pub, I was surprised to learn that, living a mere 155 miles from Newcastle, I travel a shorter distance than several of the choir’s regular members. As The Singers rehearse just twice a month, this enables members from far afield to travel to Newcastle for the weekend’s practices. 

Such commitment must surely contribute to the welcoming and friendly atmosphere that I encountered; the choir members have chosen to be there because they love what they do. When working in music, juggling deadlines and rushing to gigs, it can be surprisingly easy to forget this simple truth at the heart of music making.

The dedication of a group like The Singers makes the opportunity to work together on a new piece such a privilege, and is one of the great advantages of the Adopt A Composer scheme.

Having sung with the choir on the Friday evening rehearsal, I had the opportunity to run a workshop activity with the choir on Saturday morning. Fraser Trainer, my mentor for the project, began with some vocal and physical warm-up activities. For the main part of the workshop, I had decided to use fragments of a Latin text (by the local Tyneside author, the Venerable Bede) as the basis of a short group composition.

As the workshop progressed, it was exciting to hear how choir members shaped and developed their ideas in response to each other, even forming short phrases of spontaneous counterpoint. I heard sounds and material that I could not have imagined on my own. By the end of the workshop, the creative energy seemed almost palpable. Choir members had ideas ranging from texts, to vocal groupings, to spatialisation, which they shared with me during morning coffee. These ideas will be invaluable as the piece begins to take shape over the coming rehearsals.

Towards the end of the rehearsal, the choir sang through two choral pieces that I composed several years ago. One of these pieces was a setting of the Agnus Dei, based on a Northumbrian folk song and written for Northumbrian pipes and choir. This piece was originally written as my contribution to a folk music mass setting for Derby Cathedral Choir. As Donald had asked me to bring my Northumbrian pipes, I was able to provide the pipes part in this piece. I was delighted that the choir decided to perform my Agnus Dei in their Christmas concert, inviting me to play the pipes. There’s something pleasing about playing music in the place in which both the instrument and its music originated.

For me, the start of a new project is both exciting and a little alarming. The dazzling number of possibilities and ideas can sometimes make it difficult to choose which compositional path to follow when embarking on a new compositional journey.

One of the great aspects of Adopt A Composer is that I will not be making this journey alone. At every stage of the project, I will have the opportunity to discuss and develop ideas with the choir. In the meantime, I should probably start practising for The Singers Christmas concert on the 16 December.